Choosing a backpack that fits both your needs and your body is an endeavor similar to finding the right pair of boots. It can feel just as overwhelming, and it’s just as important that you do your research and try on a bunch before buying. A backpack isn’t simply something you carry your stuff in, it will be one of your most steady hiking companions and something you’ll have a closer relationship with than most of your other gear.
To narrow down your search, ask yourself these who-what-when-where-how questions:
- Who are you going with (do you need to help carry group gear?)
- What activities will you be doing?
- What gear do you need to bring?
- When are you going?
- What will conditions be like?
- Where are you going? (terrain)
- How comfortable are you with carrying weight?
The best backpack for you depends on the answers to those questions. A few key things to look at are purpose volume/capacity, fit, and features.
What is the purpose of the pack? Namely the length and type of trip it will be joining you on:
- Day: A day pack is my go-to when my UL pack or hydration vest just isn’t quite enough to stow extra layers in winter, extra snacks for those endless summer days, or when I need to carry more gear but won’t be camping. A good day pack will typically have a 2 liter hydration reservoir and will always have plenty of nooks and crannies to organize snacks, first aid kit, batteries/charger, layers, headlamp, microspikes, bathingsuit, who knows, plus loops and straps for trekking poles or an ice axe, and a couple small pockets on the hipbelt for easy access.
- Overnight: Basically take the day pack and beef it up a bit with more padding, more support, thicker fabric, and often a separate compartment for your sleeping bag in the bottom of the pack. Many overnight packs have plenty of external shove-it pockets and either a fixed or detachable top lid section. Especially in the summer or if you’re a very efficient packer, this size pack is great for 1-3 day weekend getaways. Consider this size also for day hikes with kids, so you can lighten their load, giving them the most enjoyable outdoor experience possible.
- Multiday: Multiday backpacks are best for extended treks or winter travel. They will have the same features of the overnight pack but with a greater main compartment and larger hydration reservoir, and even more luxurious padding. The hipbelt on my Osprey 75L was heat-molded to my hips at my local REI and has made carrying a third of my body weight feel perfectly manageable, and the shoulder straps rest comfortably on my collarbones rather than dig in or cause friction bruising. With a lanky frame and small bones, I am not a pack-animal type of hiker, but with the right gear and a steady increase in pack weight over time, I have become one of those folks that can carry a large amount of gear for long distances with minimal muttering. Multi-day packs will also normally have a detachable top lid section, which you can use as a fanny pack on side trips from base camp or as a summit pack.
- Hydration pack/hydration vest: For short trots, local/urban adventures, or ultralight hikers that are experienced in the wilderness and have pared their pack down to bare-bones minimum, a hydration pack or vest might be the way to go. Both options will allow you to carry a couple liters of water and your small essentials, and some even have a pocket roomy enough to stuff an extra layer into.
- Climbing pack: Originally designed as rope bags for rock climbers, these little (15-25 liter) packs can be a great addition to a hiker’s collection. Pros: simple construction, usually one main compartment and one or two small zippered compartments, lightweight, no frame, narrow profile good for bushwhacking or scrambling, loops on outside for attaching axe and crampons. Cons: minimal padding on straps, most don’t have any external or hipbelt pockets, if you aren’t used to traveling light these kind of packs may feel too minimalistic.
Volume refers to how much space is in the pack and is traditionally measured in liters. Over the years as hiking and camping gear has gotten smaller and lighter, packs have too. When you’re looking at the volume you need, ask yourself if you’re a minimalist or a just-in-case/kitchen sink packer, but a good rule of thumb is:
- 30 liters or less for a day pack
- 30-50 liters for overnight packs
- 45-80 liters for multi-day treks, winter trips, or if you’re a heavy overnight packer
The ultralight movement is making it possible for people to stay out longer and go farther with less, but I also know a guy who brings boxes of Kraft mac and cheese, butter, and a soup pot on weekend trips, so it’s really up to you do decide what volume you need. Determining the purpose first will help with determining what volume you need.
This cannot be stressed enough: making sure your pack fits your body is super-duper important. Like dealbreaker important. If it doesn’t hug your spine and rest on your hips to the point where you come to forget it’s there, keep looking. Because with an ill-fitting pack, not only are you going to have discomfort in the moment but could wind up with a myriad of back problems in the long run.
There are plenty of packs ergonomically designed specifically for women—they are slightly smaller, have a shorter overall/torso length, narrower shoulder straps, a higher sternum strap, and more contoured hipbelts. Depending on your unique shape you might find you need these things, or that a men’s or unisex fits better, or you might want to find a pack that has some customizable components so you can mix-and-match with smaller or larger hipbelts or shoulder straps. REI and other big outfitters will help you with sizing and adjustments.
The main things you want to fit for are:
- Torso length
- Waist/hip size
- Women-specific proportioning
- Load-lifter straps
- Sternum strap
And the main things you want to check:
- Your torso length should be within the pack’s torso range
- The load-lifter straps should come off the pack at a 45 degree angle
- The shoulder straps should conform to the back of your shoulders
- The shoulder strap padding should end a few inches below your armpits
- The hipbelt should rest on the top of your hipbones
Speaking of hipbones, here’s where being a woman comes in in the best way possible—we are built to carry weight on our hips. Men will generally have upper-body strength advantage over women (of course there are exceptions; we all know at least one woman and one man who don’t fit that stereotype) but shoulders are less important than hips when it comes to carrying heavy loads. Unlike the bones of the pectoral girdle, which are designed for optimal range of motion and flexible upper body movement, the bones of the pelvis are united to form one mostly immobile, weight-bearing structure that is designed to support the entire upper body—and women have extra-strong pelvic girdles since we were designed to carry the babies as well. So definitely make sure your hipbelt fits and is comfortable because that’s what’s going to be bearing the brunt of your cargo.
Here are some features to consider during your search:
- Frame: Gone are the days of the external metal frame packs; most packs nowadays are constructed with an internal frame that gives a little flexibility and a lot of comfort while transferring the bulk of the weight off your shoulders and onto your hips. External-frame packs can still be found and do have some advantages, especially if carrying large or irregular loads or if you need other options for attaching gear.
- Access: The last thing you want to be doing while standing on a steep incline in the dark is rifling around in your pack endlessly while your partners have already had a snack, donned or shed a layer, put on chapstick, and re-tied their boots. A lot of organization indoors leads to a good time outdoors, and having easy access to the contents of your pack is key in terms of maximizing break times while minimizing frustration. Most packs open from the top but in addition, look for side or front zippers to access items at the bottom of your pack without having to dig.
- Pockets: I for one am a sucker for pockets. I like having a couple on my hipbelt for those immediate-need items like my phone, tiny snacks, GPS, and sunscreen. Having a front shove-it pocket is great for spikes or layers, and I like at least two mid-size pockets for first aid, food, sunglasses, headlamp, batteries or charger, bug spray, etc, and two side pockets for poles, gloves, beanie, maybe bear spray or a Nalgene. This frees up the main cabin for extra layers, parka, helmet, or a picnic lunch depending on the nature of your expedition.
- Removable side-trip pack: Also called the brain or summit pack, most big packs feature a pouch that attaches and detaches completely from the main pack with a few buckles or clips. These are big enough for the ten essentials and maybe a softshell jacket or other layers.
- Rain cover: Not much else worse than rain soaking the contents of your weekend pack; a good rain cover can prove invaluable. But keep in mind they don’t do well in wind, and some people choose to just line their pack with a plastic trash bag, so if you’re looking to cut corners and don’t spend time in damp climates, consider this optional.
- Ventilation: Many newer backpacks feature a tension mesh suspension panel that keeps your pack away from your back just enough to prevent back sweat. Especially if you live somewhere warm or tend to sweat a lot, this can be a must-have comfort feature.
- Attachment points/tool loops: Look for a pack that has attachment points that suit your needs, from a reinforced crampon patch to a daisy chain to lash your helmet to, or just lots of loops and straps for poles and axes and anything you want to carabiner to the outside of your pack.
- Accessories: Whistles, hanging hooks, attachable hipbelt pockets, stuff sack, bear bells—trick out your pack with some extras
- Hydration reservoir and pocket: Though there may be times you opt out of using your hydration reservoir (usually when it’s so cold the drinking tube would freeze solid), I can’t imagine having a pack without one.
- Heat-moldable hipbelt: If this feature is available for the pack you’ve decided on, definitely do it. Not all brands or stores offer this and while it’s a lovely feature it’s not mandatory—what is mandatory is finding a pack with a well-fitting, comfortable hipbelt as that’s where the bulk of the weight will be sitting.
In short, this is an important piece of gear that will be with you for a long time, and a lot of research now will save you a lot of chiropractor visits later. Once you have your pack, you can start practicing with efficient loading, saving space, and weight distribution, and get on with the business of adventuring!
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.